J. Arthur Hill

Friend of Sir Oliver Lodge. Popular writer on spiritualism, religion and psychical research. His books included "Religion and Modern Psychology", "Spiritualism, Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine", "Emerson and his Philosophy", "Man is a Spirit", "New Evidences in Psychical Research" and "Psychical Investigations".

A Future Life

 - J. Arthur Hill -

         THERE ARE two ways by which the dilemma might conceivably be avoided, and religion made rational once more.

First, Theism. If we could be convinced that there is a real God, a powerful Being who is our Father, who loves us, and that the suffering we see around us is educative and beneficent, the thing would of course be done. We could jog along contented, leaving everything in our Father's hands. But, unfortunately, this is a conviction which we cannot reach. Kant showed in the Kritik, once for all, that though God may legitimately be believed in as an hypothesis, even a necessary one - this existence cannot be proved. And, since Kant, the argument which Mill thought the best one, and the one which believers "would do well not to abandon" (the argument from design, namely), has received an all-shattering blow at the hands of the evolutionists, who have shown how the present order of things has come about through natural causes. God therefore merges into the abstraction "Nature," and theism evaporates into pantheism. Moreover, to our increasingly sensitive moral perceptions, the existence of a good and all-powerful God seems incompatible with the existence of a world so undeniably full of terrible suffering. There is not much evidence of a Father's love in the snap of the tiger, the ravages of disease, the grinding heel of poverty.

Which of us could honestly prattle fluent platitudes about a good God to a slum dweller dying of consumption on his ragged mattress? We instinctively feel that it won't do. Even the religious man must surely feel his own faith shake at such sights:

God whose power made man and made man's wants, and made, to meet those wants,
Heaven and earth which, through the body, prove the spirit's ministrants,
Excellently all, - did He lack power or was the will in fault
When He let blue heaven be shrouded o'er by vapours of the vault,
Gay earth drop her garlands shrivelled at the first infecting breath
Of the serpent pains which herald, swarming in, the dragon death?"(1)

(1) Browning, La Saisiaz.

There is no answer. J. S. Mill, like other bold and logical thinkers, suggested that God's goodness should be saved at the expense of His omnipotence. He would have made a better world if He could; did His best, but failed to eliminate pain. In later days, William James follows in the same direction. But the idea is unsatisfactory. For one thing, we have a deep-seated feeling that pain, though evil enough to us, is sometimes in a vague but certain fashion wholesome to character, and may therefore be purposed and beneficent. Consequently we cannot feel comfortable about settling matters hastily. But certainly the problem of evil and suffering is sufficiently all-pervading and sufficiently formidable to prevent any except the most thoughtlessly optimistic from sitting down contentedly with the simple old faith in a good and loving God who is at the same time omnipotent.

Theism, then, fails. There is no hope of rescue from pessimism in that direction. Revelation, special inspiration of the Scriptures - these also are dead and done for. No man of any scholarship now believes in the inerrancy of the Sacred Books. They are classed with the Vedas, the Avesta, and the Koran; better in degree, but similar in kind. And, anyhow, the attempt to prove God by reference to the Scriptures is a palpable petitio principii. It assumes that there is a God, whose Word they are. And this, of course, is the very point requiring to be proved.

There remains the question of a future life. The whole thing now turns on this. If there is no survival, no rational scheme of things is possible. The present state of the world gives no cause for satisfaction. There is a terrible amount of suffering - undeserved suffering, so far as we can see - in the living creation around us. If there is no individual continuation after bodily death, the constitution of things seems unjust to a large proportion of the inhabitants of the planet. What, in this case, is the sense of it all? A time will come when the earth, cold and dead as the moon already is, will spin its way through lonely space, with the ashes of millions of human beings on its surface, but without a trace of sentiency. Has all that human struggle and sweat and suffering been for nothing, then? For nothing? If so, how much better would it have been if man had never been at all! This, surely, is the last verge of pessimism. It is a condemnation of the world-process as a gigantic cruelty. If this process has been created and directed by intelligence, that intelligence, if all-powerful, is immoral. The causing of useless pain is the very depth of wickedness. If this is what the Cosmic Power does, we cannot call it good, and consequently cannot worship it. That, at least we say with Mill(2) - it shall not force us to do. In short, if there is no future state; if there is no continuation of consciousness which shall admit of a levelling-up of merit and reward, demerit and punishment; if there is to be no Future which shall somehow make this Present comprehensible by fitting it into a whole as the first act fits into a drama; if this is so, then atheism follows, or, what is worse than atheism, the belief that, though there is no God, there is, a very real Devil.

(2) Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, ch. vii.

But there is still this saving possibility of survival. If it could be satisfactorily shown that the human soul lives on. past the wrench of bodily death, the way to rational optimism would again be opened to us. It would then be possible to surmise, with the genial Autocrat, that our existence here is a kind of school education, the seemingly harsh discipline of which will be explained when we get into one of the upper classes(3). If we could be assured of this, we could do without further, or ultimate, world-explanations; the next step at least would be made clear, and we could wait for further light until that next step should have been taken. Even theism becomes of secondary account; though a future life again makes a good God possible. What, then, can we say about this question of a possible continuance of life beyond the grave? Is the problem really, as Huxley thought, outside the limits of philosophical inquiry? For, if it should turn out to be amenable to scientific treatment, it may be possible to make an attempt at a religious synthesis on a scientific basis - a "faith which is science," in Emerson's phrase - with the help of the results obtained by investigation.

(3) Letter to Mr Kimball, in Life and Letters, by Morse.

And I believe that this is veritably so. I believe that the question of whether or not human personality survives the death of the body is now likely to be settled in the affirmative by strictly scientific methods. Science is pushing its investigations into the terra incognita on the other side Jordan, and is finding human intelligence still active on that further shore - and, what is more, able and willing to communicate with us. This seems a reckless and even absurd thing to say. No one can be more aware of this than I, who in the days of my ignorance have scoffed at "spiritualism" as much as most people. And, even now, I am no spiritualist, in any usual sense of the word. There seems to me to be a great deal of fraud and folly in that movement, and I do not wish to sail under its flag. The problem to be attacked is so tremendously difficult, and is so complicated with disturbing factors (the agency of the incarnate subliminal, chiefly), that I distrust those who arrive at a solution too speedily. But the spiritualists have pointed the way to us, and I thank them accordingly. They have found real facts, whatever the interpretation; and to them belongs the credit of being discoverers and pioneers in the occupation and exploration of this new world which science now hopes some day to map out. Since the time of Bacon, science has given us a new earth; she is now about to give us a new heaven.

But, be it noted, I am not contending that a belief in a future state, even if the "rewards and punishments" be assumed, will necessarily cause anyone to be religious and good. I am concerned only with the rationality of things. Belief is less operative on conduct than is commonly supposed. Opinions have little to do with actions, unless they are so vividly realised as to rouse strong emotion. I was once present at a discussion on theological matters, between two acquaintances of mine whose opinions greatly differed. One of them was an amiable and admirable lady, a thoroughly good soul, somewhat of a thinker, and sadly "unsound" in matters of doctrine. The other belonged to the stronger sex, was a Churchman - or at least considered himself so because he went to church regularly and had been properly baptized and confirmed - and was possessed of a mind which often astonished me by its magnificent inactivity. The discussion reached the subject of Hell. The lady signified her disbelief in everlasting flames, with a vigour which would have greatly pained good Jonathan Edwards, who got much joy out of the doctrine. "But," objected the Churchman, "if we don't believe in hell, what is to prevent us from doing wrong?"

It was a crude way of putting it, and his point was nullified by the very facts of the situation; for his own moral life was on a much lower plane than that of his unbelieving antagonist. But he could have quoted great names in his support, if he had only known. Pascal, for example, could not understand men who, in spite of complete agnosticism, still had a standard of good, and tried to live up to it(4). He made the mistake of looking on men as purely rational creatures. It is not intellectual opinions, or even implanted and therefore only semi-intellectual beliefs, that move the world. The morality of the Dark Ages was not remarkably good, although this period was the most universally unquestioning and fully believing period in the history of Christianity. Says Spencer:

(4) Blaise Pascal: a Study in Religious Psychology, by Humfrey R. Jordan, p. 234.

"Much astonishment may, indeed, reasonably be felt at the ineffectiveness of threats and promises of supposed supernatural origin. European history, dyed through and through with crime, seems to imply that fear of hell and hope of heaven have had small effects on men. Even at the present moment, the absolute opposition between the doctrine of forgiveness preached by a hundred thousand European priests, and the actions of European soldiers and colonists who outdo the law of blood revenge among savages, and massacre a village in retaliation for a single death, shows that two thousand years of Christian culture have changed the primitive barbarian very little... At any rate, it is clear that, with men as they have been and are, the ultimate reasons for good conduct are too remote and shadowy to be operative."(5)

(5) Autobiography, ii. pp. 467, 468.

It is true that the (assumed) belief in the Christian eschatology seems to have had little moral power, though it is possible that the lack has been due partly to the belief being less strong than we suppose, and little feeling being roused by it. But where it was strong, the feeling (fear of bell) undoubtedly was proportionally vivid. That it did not make good men, as we understand "good" was due to the moral ideas of the time. The New Testament idea of virtue is love, charity, philanthropy; but, for example, the cardinal religious virtue of the fourth and fifth centuries was chastity. Consequently, those who vividly realised the hell in which they believed, did not become loving and philanthropic; on the contrary, they fled from society into desert or monastery - breaking the heart of many a loving mother or wife - in order to mortify the flesh. It seems, then, that the hell-belief was not as entirely inoperative as Spencer indicates; though it must be admitted that, where it was operative, it did not conduce to what we consider goodness(6).

(6) For some harrowing examples of soul-saying at the expense of relatives' pain, see Lecky's History of European Morals, ii. p. 52 (Watts' 1911 edition).

But it is only on exceptional and somewhat unbalanced souls that these other-world beliefs act so strongly as to rouse much driving force of emotion. With the average man, their presence or absence is ethically negligible, or nearly so. There is no impossibility or even any intrinsic strangeness in an atheist loving his fellow-man better than does the most vigorous Primitive Methodist. Edna Lyall, herself a good Christian, portrayed an atheistic saint in Luke Raeburn; and the fact that the original of the fictitious Raeburn was so widely thought to be Charles Bradlaugh, is significant testimony to the latter's character. The lives of men like Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Sidgwick, and hosts of less-known men, are a standing disproof of the doctrine that morality must vanish along with belief in post-mortem rewards and punishments. "I have known," says Tyndall, "some of the most pronounced among those who have been called atheists and materialists, not only in life, but in death - seen them approaching with open eyes the inexorable goal, with no dread of a 'hangman's whip,' with no hope of a heavenly crown, and still as mindful of their duties and as faithful in the discharge of them as if their eternal future depended upon their latest deed" (Fragments of Science).

Similarly, Professor Lake, in The Guardian, 26th August 1910, points to the "fact that many of those who lead the best lives do so in spite of the fact that they have no feeling for religion whatever; and, on the other hand, many of those who claim the widest experience of religious life are guilty of moral falls which their non-religious brethren avoid."

The obvious and by this time threadbare reply to this kind of statement is, that the non-religious but nevertheless good man is good because of his ancestry and the general atmosphere in which he was reared. He may not be a Christian, but if his parents or his grandparents, or his environment, had not been Christian, he himself would not and could not have been good. So runs the argument, for example, of a Guardian correspondent replying to Professor Lake, (9th September 1910). When non-religious people are good (says this writer) it is "either the result of a healthy early training received from pious parents and teachers," or their thoughts and practices have been "moulded and fixed by public opinion, which, in this country at least, is in large measure the creation of religion."

True; but is there not a possible "healthy early training" by "pious parents and teachers" in religions other than Christianity? Is there no morality among Buddhists and Mohammedans? Can it be denied that in some things the morality of these people is higher than our own, as in the attitude of the Moslem to drunkenness?(7) These questions can only be answered in one way; and the answers upset the whole argument of those who seek to tie morality to Christian belief. If "Christian" be given up, and the statement watered down to the contention that there can be no morality without some form of religion, the position is perhaps saved, but in a way which would be distasteful to the Guardian correspondent. Buddhism is a religion: but it has no God and no personal immortality; yet there are many Buddhists who are good men. I suppose the Guardian correspondent wishes there weren't! - for it spoils his argument if he is arguing for Christianity. Indeed, his own argument may be turned against him with terrible effect by an agnostic "moral-instruction" man; for if character is so dependent on "training," "public opinion," etc., it is implicitly admitted that it is not much influenced by belief. But, as already said, the best reply is the plain fact that high morality may exist apart from anything, past or present, that the orthodox Christian would call religious belief, Character is not determined by creed. It is a growth that is the result of many complex causes. Individually, goodness is perhaps more intimately associated with imagination than with anything else; for the first requisite of good character is sympathy, the power of putting yourself in the other man's place, of seeing things from an outside point of view. This involves imagination. Jesus had it pre-eminently. He sympathised with the suffering not only of the bereaved, the blind, the sick, but also with the erring. "Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone."

(7) Was St Anthony himself more in love with chastity than the Japanese girl who preferred death to dishonour? (Yoshio Markino, A Japanese Artist in London, p. 73).

Sympathy and imagination, then, have more to do with character in action than intellectual beliefs. Belief in survival will not necessarily make people good. But it will tend to improve their conduct, in so far as it affects it at all - at least, it will if the future life is conceived of as evolutionary and not fixed and static. But, what is our main point, it makes a rational Scheme of Things possible. And it must be individual continuation. Any absorption into the "pan-psyche," any Drop-slipping-into-the-shining-sea, is an extinction of personality, however we may juggle with terms. We must remain ourselves, as Peer Gynt was so anxious to do, with memories intact. Christianity at its best sees this, and insists on personality. In a recent notable utterance of one of its ablest clerical exponents, there were some striking remarks on this point; remarks, however, which would hardly be passed unchallenged by a vigorous heresy-hunter. Says the Bishop of London (Dr Winnington Ingram) in a Saturday-afternoon sermon preached at St Lawrence, Jewry:

"Is there anything definite about death in the Bible? I believe there is. I think if you follow me, you will find there are six things revealed to us about life after death. The first is that the man is the same man. Instead of death being the end of him, he is exactly the same five minutes after death as five minutes before death, except having gone through one more experience in life. In the second place the character grows after death; there is progress. As it grows in life so it grows after death. A third thing is, we have memory. 'Son, remember,' that is what was said to Dives in the other world. Memory for places and people. We shall remember everything after death, and we must pray in this world that our memory may be blessed after death. Then, fifthly, when we die as Christians we are to be with Christ. 'To-day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.' 'It is better to depart and be with Christ.'

"And with memory there will be recognition: we shall know one another. Husband and wife, parents and children. Sixthly, we shall still take great interest in the world we have left. Moses and Elias in the Transfiguration followed with the keenest interest the concerns of this world, and surely we shall not lose sight of the dear ones left behind."

This is very good, but we may suspect that the Bishop's goodness of heart leads him to forget or to suppress the texts about everlasting damnation in Matt. xxv. 41 and elsewhere. Probably he selects what appeals to him, and disregards the rest, as do most of us. The interesting thing to note is that his future life is very like the future life of the spiritualists, and is not a static kind - "as the tree falls, so shall it lie," etc. - as painted by orthodox theology. True, Catholic theology admits progress for souls in purgatory. But it excludes it for those in hell. And certainly the recognised Protestant theologians have excluded after-death progress altogether; their abolishment of purgatory being one of the principal mistakes of the Reformation. (The doctrine of purgatory had grown up in early medieval times, as a kind of softening of the intolerable conception of an eternal hell. Its obvious financial advantages to the Church, however, led to still more intolerable abuses, and it is not surprising that the Reformers swept it away.)

What, then, can be advanced from the side of reason, in support of this idea of a future life, which I provisionally believe in, and which would solve so many difficulties? Metaphysics is obsolete, in the ontological sense. The question must be decided at the bar of science. What, then, does science say? What hard facts can be adduced in favour of continued personal existence after death? For they must be hard facts, not theological jugglery with words, or selected quotations from ancient books which would equally well provide quotations to prove the opposite doctrine.


The article above first appeared in "Religion and Modern Psychology" (1911, William Rider and Son) by J. Arthur Hill.


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